It was an unusual hearing. So said Sen. Pat Jehlen, specifically referring to how despite the committee that she chairs being tasked with processing 85 bills and counting, this week’s Monday morning procedural was a general explanatory session. A prerequisite for a larger headache to come.
But there was something else unusual about the session—namely, that it was a production of the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy, and all about cannabis. More specifically, the topic at hand was Chapter 334 of the Acts of 2016, better known as the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, passed by the people of Mass last November.
Unlike officials who are running with the BS line that the electorate supported an idea, without attending to the many details of a legal cannabis program, I won’t purport to know exactly what was in the minds of voters when they ended prohibition in the Bay State. But considering the behavior of lawmakers in the time since, and from the attitudes on display at the State House this week (I stayed for more than two hours of the five-hour hearing), it’s clear that a lot of people in power still think marijuana is a menace which must be contained at great cost.
At this juncture, following several years of formal Beacon Hill debate, it’s ridiculous to have to laundry list the ways in which prohibitionist pols ignore facts. Like that cannabis is used by countless individuals for critical relief. And to spur positive, creative energy. And so on.
Yet when addressing straights in the legislature, as well as their aides who just a couple of years ago were dabbing in their college dorm rooms, it’s important to address the superficial needs of lawmakers, particularly those which pertain to power and profit. State Treasurer Deb Goldberg, who is tasked with appointing the three members of the Commonwealth’s Cannabis Control Commission, used her soapbox to explain in unapologetic terms that she wants higher marijuana taxes than is planned—which could hit 12 percent in some municipalities that tack on a local option atop the state’s base and a 3.75 percent marijuana tax—in order to pay for an oversight program, which she says will cost about $10 million a year.
As for how much all those tax bucks could add up to—Mass Commissioner of Revenue Michael J. Heffernan presented an informative Department of Revenue study, noting the jarring newsness of such windfalls since the Commonwealth doesn’t tax medical cannabis. Using the tax rates reflected in the current bill and guidance from legal precedents in Washington and Colorado, Heffernan estimated first-year revenue at about $64 million, with that number bumping up to $132 million in year two. At the same time, DOR officials say there is significant uncertainty in their estimates, as they’re basically assuming since it is a “market whose use has been heretofore illegal.”
Some officials appear to be playing games. Either that or they are unforgivably ignorant, asking basic questions about things like pot laws in neighboring states, which a cannabis committee member should have probably Googled beforehand. For many, their primary concern appears to still be holding legal sales back as much as possible, especially in towns and cities as they hope to shift the power to opt out of marijuana retail from the voters to selectmen, aldermen, and councilors. This despite their contradictory lust for revenue, which one can easily foresee keeping the black market burning.
As for what the experts had to say … Will Luzier of the Yes on 4 Coalition, the proponents piggybacking last year’s legalization initiative, kicked knowledge on a range of topics, including the need to appoint cannabis commissioners as soon as possible. A former inside man himself who at one point served as the executive director of the Interagency Council on Substance Abuse & Prevention under former Governor Deval Patrick, Luzier made joint committee members feel needed—they should focus on tangential issues such as stoned driving, he encouraged—all while steering them away from areas they should leave alone, like the details of the law approved by voters.
“Ballot initiatives in Massachusetts are restricted by several measures including the single subject rule,” Luzier said. “Expungement of prior marijuana convictions, impaired driving and use of tax revenue could not be included in the ballot question. We encourage the Committee to focus on issues not addressed by the law, such as: criminal expungement; impaired driving detection methods; substance abuse treatment and prevention; use of tax revenue; baseline study of marijuana use.”
“You should legislate,” Luzier told officials, perhaps coining a slogan for the post-legalization movement, “and let the regulators regulate.”
Even on their best behavior, certain joint committee members couldn’t mask their contempt for reality. And for cannabis consumers. Claiming to care about children, they shoved dagger after dagger through the bill approved by more than 1.8 million Mass residents, sort of like little kids asking about rules over and over in hopes that they’ll change. And forget about any lessons that may have been learned during the hours upon hours of patient testimony from the medical cannabis hearings just a few years ago; from the sounds of their rhetoric, some commissioners still fail to see any merit in marijuana beyond monetization, and are seemingly forgetting about those who are most vulnerable in the process.
With a local media that’s still reporting pointless junk and silly scare tactics—I read today that current home grow regulations would allow up to 12,000 joints per household, as if that has any more kibbles to do with Commonwealth law than the cost of kandy kush in Canada—it’s hard not to at least be thankful that the people of Mass are smarter than the buffoons who they elect to represent them.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.